Questions worthy of a Presidential Candidate (update 9/15)

The candidates have yet to be brought together for a debate over issues of Science and Technology, although has been working towards that goal for almost a year.

They have succeeded in getting at least one Presidential candidate, Barack Obama, to answer their 14 policy questions on Science and Technology.  It is a very good read and the questions alone point out how important these issues are to our future.  Hopefully, the McCain campaign will follow suit and provide their answers very soon.  (update 9/15, the McCain campaign has posted their answers and you may see them side-by-side with Obama’s here.)

I have to say I was very impressed and pleased with the answers given.  It was obvious the answers came from some very intelligent individuals (Mr. Obama can’t possibly have the breadth and depth of knowledge for all those answers).  We can only hope Mr. Obama continues to elicit such knowledgable advise and adhere to it, if elected president.

How important is Science and Technology to you?

If your answer was ‘Pretty Damn Important!”, you’re correct.  If you gave any other answer, you’re just wrong.  You are.

How do I know this?  Because you are reading this.  It’s that simple.  You’ve probably never considered the basic science and engineering that brought this page to you.   Physics, fundamentally, but also electrical engineering, computer science, mathematics and even biology.  That’s just some of what it takes to bring a web page to you.

Ask yourself some pretty basic questions:  How did I get to work?  How is my house cooled or heated?  Where does my entertainment come from (even modern publishing and distribution is a feat of technology!)?  Why is it that we live longer than our ancesters and in better general health?

You shouldn’t get through a day without considering the importance of scientific and technological advancements that make our lives rich and functional.

Equipped with his five senses, man explores the universe around him and calls the adventure Science. ~Edwin Powell Hubble, The Nature of Science, 1954


BodyWorlds 2

The whole Icetray joined some friends up at the Maryland Science Center to check out the BodyWorlds 2 exhibit. If you’ve never heard of Body Worlds, it is an exhibit of what the BodyWorlds people call “plastinates”. Plastinates are people, real people, that have been preserved through a process that removes the body fluids an replaces them with a polymer or epoxy kind of stuff. We joked about whether they waited, or actively procured the bodies from drunken tourists or something.

That’s not really saying enough, though. You might think that this is just an opportunity for the average person to have a taste of what a medical school gross anatomy class is like. I suppose it is that to an extent and that would be enough to make it worth your time. That is only the jumping off point.

There are also words, descriptive, poetic, challenging and thought provoking writ large on the walls and psyche. The exhibit explores the brain, birth, health (it gets pretty darn pedantic on anti-smoking) and our relationship to the animal kingdom. One thing is for sure, the creators of the exhibit did not equivocate on their message. We are animals. We are physical beings.

The one thing it mostly wasn’t, was the one thing I expected. It wasn’t really gross. Sure there were some black lungs, cancerous growths, distorted hearts and a particularly cyst-y kidney which was disgusting. Yet, we practically ran from display to display, ooh-ing and discussing. It was a terrific experience though it wasn’t without its disturbing aspects.

While many of the bodies have been frozen for all time in postures that expose organs, or show how the body works during activity, a few are attempts at art. It is really these few examples that left me disturbed. The use of cadavers for education, especially of the masses, I find compelling. Taking the flesh and trying to express artistic intent, felt more like something for a madman in a horror movie. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

If you have the means and the exhibit ends up near you, I recommend you go. I’d also like to know what you thought about it.

“Man is an intelligence in servitude to his organs.” ~Aldous Huxley


The Amazing Meeting 6 (Next year, for sure!)

I was unable, again, to attend the James Randi Educational Foundation’s , The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas. It conflicted with the trip to Costa Rica. Which was awesome and more important to my marriage.

Nonetheless, with the help of some of my favorite podcasters, I’ve been able to experience some of the better moments.

This was George Hrab‘s first year at TAM, and he was on the bill! It’s worth listening to his post-tam episode, just to hear what someone sounds like when they get what they always wanted.

Skepticality is running a series of episodes featuring interviews from TAM 6. The first two interviews, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage from The Mythbusters.

The Skeptics Guide to the Universe, recorded a live episode at TAM and will be incorporating interviews from the meeting into future episodes.

The Bad Astronomer, Phil Plait, has blogged of the event and included a cool video.

Soccergirl episode #286 and #287 has some great video footage from TAM 6.

These are only the ones I’ve managed to get to since I’ve been back from travel. I’m sure there’s more great coverage out there I haven’t found yet!

But are not the dreams of poets and the tales of travellers notoriously false?
H. P. Lovecraft



I recently heard an interview with Brian Dunning on Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe and was very impressed with him, so I pulled down his podcast. I’ve now gone back and listened to all of them.

Skeptoid is a very different skepticism-oriented podcast from the rest I subscribe to. It is not a round table, it is not interview-oriented. It is just one guy, who does his research, and presents one topic per show in a straightforward intelligent manner.

His topics range from Homeopathy, and other medical buffoonery, to 9/11 conspiracies and the war on Terror. Along the way Brian sprinkles in some good education on Critical Thinking and how to spot Logical Fallacies and Fallacious Arguments.

Brian is committed to just getting clear information out. All of his podcasts are available for free, they are also reproduced as essays on his site AND now many of them are collected into his new book, SKEPTOID: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena with a foreword by none other than James “The Amazing Randi” Randi.

He doesn’t even accept donations, he only asks that you spread the word. So, in my little way…

“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles at it.” — Margaret Fuller (1810 – 1850), journalist, critic, women’s rights activist


Carl puts it into perspective

While we are pondering who should be the next leader of the most powerful nation on the planet, I think it is appropriate to put the campaign issues in perspective. So, on the occasion of his birthday November 9, 1934, scientist, author and prescient philosopher, I present Carl Sagan.

His writing and his series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, impacted me in ways that continue to shape who I am and what I believe. His life’s work was exploration and education and while he accomplished so much more than the great majority of us will in our lifetimes, he was gone much too soon.Hopefully, his words will cause you to reflect on what is important and how you define friend, family or neighbor.Peace.

If you don’t have YouTube access here is a version in text.

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Think Again?

OK, so here are a few views on the article “Think Again” by Standley Fish. The article, an opinion piece in the New York Times, is an introduction to new books by Bart Ehrman (“God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer”) and Antony Flew (“There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind”).

The author clearly is looking at both books with the question, “Can religion or
atheism be supported based on their explanation of human suffering?”

The first four paragraphs try to provide a context for the discussion, but I find them a waste of space, since he never truly evaluates whether we should be asking the question at all. Mr. Fish quotes from “Paradise Lost” and Paul’s writings in the new testament. Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is a work of fiction. I think many forget that since Milton’s imagery often sneaks into theological discussions. The new testament writings are only valid if you pre-suppose they are NOT a work of fiction at which point the discussion is pretty much over and you are just trying to noodle-out god’s will.

Mr. Fish continues by suggesting that the problem of “the existence of suffering and evil in a world presided over by an all powerful and benevolent deity” is the supporting argument for atheism espoused by Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and others. He misses that the sole purpose of this line of reasoning is to pursuade the faithful, it is hardly a major pillar of non-theistic reasoning.

While I have no doubt that Bart Ehrman did have a crisis of faith brought on by
the suffering in the world and the classic question, “How can god allow this to happen?”
From my reading of a number of his books and listening to his lectures, I believe he
has no illusions about the very human origin of scripture. Which, one would think, pretty much negates the whole question. If you don’t buy in to the fundamental doctrine of a vengeful god, or a god that participates in daily life, then you don’t need to discuss the “reason” bad things happen.

With regard to Mr. Fish’s comments on Antony Flew’s book. While atheism may be considered the dogma of god denial. I expect most atheists are clear in their recognition that one cannot assert that god does not exist, since you cannot prove a negative. Instead, they assert that the concept of god as it is defined by religion is one made up by man without evidence and, therefore, not worthy of belief.

It goes round and round, just because one cannot conceive of how the intricate workings of nature could occur without a conscious hand at the wheel, doesn’t prove there is a hand. It is just wish-thinking and wanting doesn’t make it so. “How can a universe of mindless matter produce beings with intrinsic ends [and] self-replication capabilities?”, this is a great question. Wouldn’t it be a shame, if we just bailed on the search for the answer and just decided “God did it”?

It is unfortunate that science cannot answer all the questions craved by the human mind. On the other hand, science has only had a few millennium to unravel about 14.5 billion years of known universal existence. It would be truly sad, if we thought we had all the answers and just stopped looking. Some questions, I think, will always be the domain of philosophy, since they cannot be evaluated by the rigor of experiment.

While I have not read Mr Ehrman’s latest book, I would be disappointed to think it begins an ends with the, wholly artificial, religious concept of “evil”. To allow religion to frame the context of the dialog is beyond giving them the home field advantage, it is granting them the ability to write the rules, referee and keep score.

“I believe in God, although I live very happily with atheists… It is very important not to mistake hemlock for parsley; but not at all so to believe or not in God.” Denis Diderot, conceding to Voltaire’s defense of the concept of God (during a letter dialogue sparked by Voltaire’s letter commenting on Letter to the Blind), though quoted from Jim Herrick, Against the Faith (1985), p. 75 (from Positive Atheism’s Big List of Denis Diderot Quotations)

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I just realized that I haven’t successfully completed and published a post in quite a while. I think I’ll have to get more disciplined about this whole thing.

Well, here it is the start of a new week and my kids will be off to school soon. Yet it’s me that has learned stuff already today.

I used to be a huge fan of Slacker Astronomy. Then, around the time the reorganized into Slackerpedia Galactica and Dr. Pamela Gay moved on to Astronomy Cast with Frasier Cain, publisher of The Universe Today, my ADD kicked in and I wandered away to any of the other 50 podcasts I seem to be subscribed to.
Well, this morning, I decided to get a little smarter and was paid off handsomely. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the episode on the Planet Mercury, I then listened to the prior episode on tidal forces. Which was totally cool. Especially, since I found out that the stretching that occurs when the gravitational pull on one end of an object is greater than at the other is called, get this, Spaghettification. Now, as you’re sliding into the Black Hole and your feet are stretching away into infiinity, you can look down and think, “Gee, I’m Spaghettifying!” How cool is that?


Thanks for all the fish…

Sometimes you read something and your mouth just hangs open. It just takes you by surprise and then sits on you kind of stunned. I’ve always thought that Douglas Adams’ estimation of dolphin intelligence was probably bang on, but this article shows just how well they can reason. This article may be a bit dated, but not being a marine mammal expert it was new to me.

Deep Thinkers